The Awl published a Noah Davis piece that last week in which the writer uses actual numbers, down to the dollar and number of invoices, to account for how much money he’s been able to make as a freelance journalist. It begins as less a takedown of how hard it is to survive in the new gig economy than a freelance economics lesson, or maybe a complex math equation.
Freelancing for websites is nearly unsustainable, especially in the one-off pitch, write and edit sense. But here’s the thing: It rarely makes financial sense for the website, either…. Revenue streams on the Internet are too nascent and too in-flux to provide anything concrete. A growing number of publications are able to pay something, which is an improvement, but the value of the written word cratered simply because most of the Internet’s publications, unlike their printed forebears, has no subscriber base.
Davis acknowledges that though he is doing OK for now, he doesn’t know how, or even whether, journalism will survive long-term. But at least he doesn’t claim that he has the answers, unlike so many other so-called new-media experts. He doesn’t recommend “monetizing” better or going “platform native” or making more engaging ads (as though that were even possible). He just lays out the real costs of making words, saying, “There’s a vital distinction to be made between artistic value and monetary value.”
Saying that “print isn’t the rule; it’s the exception,” he quotes the great Ann Friedman, the writer, editor and GIF enthusiast who used to work at Good: “My plan that I’m going to supplement my weekly web income with a few big print stories might not be feasible even two years down the road. I’m aware of that. But for me, it’s a race against time. How can I build a personal brand as a journalist, not to Andrew Sullivan levels or anything, but the recognition that I have job security before the parachute of print assignments goes away? That’s how I see my personal calculus.”
A race against time. The parachute of print assignments that will go away. Personal brand as a journalist. Bracing stuff. (The woman is known for her #realtalk, after all.)
Stating the obvious, namely that “the Internet democratized writing,” Davis cites some troubling numbers:
The number of “writers” exploded, even while one estimate for the number of official jobs for full-time journalists decreased from 61,000 in 1997 to 45,500 in 2012.
He goes into a bit of a tangent about how the real problem might be that up-and-comers don’t have mentors now, and that’s definitely true, especially because journalism, more than most careers, is an almost entirely on-the-job learning experience. But if you asked a clerk, mail carrier or stock broker, I’m certain they’d make the same claim — without calling their jobs a (cue eye roll) craft. Without getting too deeply into the mire, I can state unequivocally that I learned everything I know about making words and making them better through my various jobs and the people who were kind enough to teach me.
But back to Davis, who concludes that he likes life as a freelance writer for the most part:
The lack of long-term stability can be troubling, especially on those frustrating days when editors aren’t returning my emails, but that’s a conscious trade-off I made for being able to go running in the middle of the day…. In a world that’s less about traditional, one-company one-job careers and more about bouncing around and trying to find a way, it works for now.
How long “for now” lasts is a bigger problem as we kick the can down the Future of Journalism road. Still, the post is an enlightening take on the real world of freelancing, good and bad, and worth a read in full.